Orthodoxy as a political issue
by John A. Rakestraw
The last two Roman Catholic politicians nominated by a major political party for president of the United States—Al Smith in 1928 and John F. Kennedy in 1960 — had to overcome voters' concerns that they might be too Catholic, representing the interests of the Vatican rather than those of the American people. But as John Kerry prepared this spring to receive the Democratic presidential nomination, some Catholics have charged he is not Catholic enough.
Kerry's critics are concerned, especially about his support for abortion rights. At this writing, a task force of U.S. Catholic bishops is deliberating about the church's response to politicians who favor abortion rights, but even before that task force is finished, four U.S. Catholic bishops said that Catholic politicians (like Kerry) who support abortion rights should be refused communion. Fifteen others have asked politicians who favor abortion rights not to take communion.
In response to this challenge to Kerry and others, a pair of Catholic Democrats in Congress has assembled a list of social issues on which the Roman Catholic Church has taken an official stand in an effort to prove that Catholic social doctrine addresses more issues than just abortion. The list includes opposition to the death penalty, the war in Iraq, and poverty.
Most elected officials, Catholic or otherwise, do not vote in line with their faith community on all issues.Though it has not received much attention, President Bush is hardly loyal to his own United Methodist Church's official positions. Consider, that church's statement regarding the death penalty: “We oppose capital punishment and urge its elimination from all criminal codes.”
Lurking beneath the debate about Kerry's Catholicism is an important question for religious communities: How does a faith community decide who is in and who is out? Religious organizations face significant challenges in identifying the proper relationship between the organization's positions and those held by individuals in the organization—especially when an individual plays a prominent role in the world.
What if instead we considered a faith community as a community of inquiry? The community would come together not for members to collectively affirm particular propositions, but to ask important questions together. In practice, there are moments when the inquiry and the community are in tension—when the inquiry becomes so passionate that humans are bruised in the asking, and when many agree so solidly on the “right” answers to the questions that those who disagree are excluded. But holding to the ideal of the community of inquiry would have members striving for a community that includes all who are genuinely interested in the community and its most important questions.
This community of inquiry, I suggest, is at the heart of Unitarian Universalism. We don't always live up to the ideal. But the ideal and our attempt to live it out are important contributions to the larger discussion of the nature of faith communities and the role they might play in contemporary political debates.